Theme : Compromise – Driving The Modern Car

Man and Machine in Perfect Harmony?


The above quote dates from the days when Ford felt that they could snub a sizeable sector of their customer base in their advertising but, disregarding the now quaint-looking gender bias, it does speak of that need to sit well at the controls of your chosen motor car.

I was looking at the interior of a new Peugeot 3008 the other day and was offended by the steering wheel. The now almost mandatory flat bottom has been joined by a flat top which, I assume, is a compromise that allows a larger field of view of the high-mounted instrument panel. Combined with the centre boss and mounted controls, there seems little room left to put your hands. But then I thought the usual – don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

Because I’m offended by a lot of steering wheels nowadays. And gearsticks. They seem more and more prescriptive in their ergonomics. Good ergonomics is, surely, adapting a system to the human body. Bad ergonomics is demanding the body adapts to the system. In fact that isn’t even ergonomics. The Peugeot’s steering wheel seems to have been designed to be gripped and used in one way only.

In principle I might approve of this. I am essentially a ten-to-two sort of person, but I’m not so dogmatic as to assume that is the only way to conduct a car well. I seem to recall many years ago reading a respected driver (Stirling Moss maybe) saying that in everyday driving he favoured quarter-to-three. Which is of course perfectly fine.. But half-past-six is not, neither is ten-to-four, unless you are forever driving round a British roundabout. Which we currently are – but enough of politics.

Ever since my car delivery days, when I experienced the full gamut of driving abilities, I’ve been a pretty fatalistic passenger. I sit there and look at the idiot with his elbow on the windowsill, two fingers lightly gripping the steering wheel, whilst he scratches himself intimately with the other hand, and I think casually about the things I might have done with my life, but I’m not scared. I am aesthetically offended. There is something unseemly about my species letting down the human/machine interface.

This is simulated by a skilled professional. Do not attempt to emulate.
This is simulated by a highly skilled blogger. Do not attempt to emulate.

So is the Peugeot steering wheel the answer? It seems to demand that you hold it in my preferred position, with your body straight and your eyes on the road – a posture encouraged by Peugeot’s literally over-the-top instruments. So, indeed, I won’t knock it until I try it, but it still worries me. Without wanting to come across as a rabid libertarian, like many of the things that are designed to make our world a safer place, the Peugeot’s steering wheel seems to deprive us of choice. Those bulges even dictate where you put your thumbs and suggest that you grip it tight. My own preference is to hold the wheel quite lightly, and I have a variety of preferred thumb positions. Would the 3008 accommodate me?

I don’t have many pictures of me at the steering wheel but I have now studied a video of me driving and I note the following range of poses*.

The other thing that Stirling Moss (or, maybe, someone else) pointed out is that ‘feeding’ the wheel is not always necessary and that there is nothing wrong with a bit of crossed arm work if you know where you are going. With just 2 turns lock-to-lock on the car I’m driving above that is what I occasionally do. That is a car with very precise and sensitive steering; driving a van I would be a bit less gentle but, really, most modern vehicles, whatever their size, are not really physical in their inter-reaction and don’t respond well to the iron fist. Also, you will note that the wheel on my car is slightly oval, so you might find my desire that steering wheels should be round, rather hypocritical. So I should modify that to the desire that they should be harmoniously curved and devoid of sudden changes. But, generally, I don’t think that the Peugeot’s wheel would allow me the comfortable range of gripping options I seem to like.

But then I’m talking from the viewpoint of someone who grew up thinking of a car cabin as being more something derived from a vintage Bentley than a Star Wars starfighter. So maybe it’s just an age thing and, unless I steer clear of all moderns, or unless autonomy comes along very quickly, or unless fate stops me from driving very soon, I guess I’m going to have to compromise my driving style and get used to it.

Erogonom ... what? 4½ Litre Bentley dashboard - image :
Erogonom … what? 4½ Litre Bentley dashboard – image :

* To avoid misunderstanding, where I am not holding the wheel, I am stationary – a state well-known to city drivers.


19 thoughts on “Theme : Compromise – Driving The Modern Car”

  1. Interesting subject the steering wheel and something that could or should be replaced in future. Just recently while sitting parked in a line of other cars I looked sideways through at least a dozen windows and focused on one item that was common to all, the steering wheel!
    Surely it’s about time, its been around some 115 years,this device which has to be shuffled or spun is replaced with something more appropriate now that we have electronics and self driving cars, even the aeronautics industry has embraced fly by wire and joy sticks.
    With electrification of our cars in most other ways it’s only sensible to incorporate the steering system eliminating this archaic wheel device. Just think about it the only reason it exsists is for leverage which with the advent of power assist leverage was no longer a problem but the range between locks was with some five turns on some cars or two turns on the SM.
    It’s a flawed archaic system in today’s world much like multi ratio gearboxes, crutch like pollution systems and internal combustion engines.

    1. I have to disagree. Right now it is difficult to imagine something more precise and effective as the steering wheel, particularly in town. Self-driving cars are a different matter altogether.

  2. The old “ten to two” prescription for hand placement might have been useful when driving an unassisted Scammell truck, but it has become redundant with the ubiquity of power steering. In town I most often keep one hand on the gear stick, whereas on the motorway my hands nestle somewhere near the bottom of the wheel. The only time I maintain the “correct” hand placement is when batting down a country road, in which case I find it useful for maintaining a constant state of preparedness, plus maximising whatever feedback I can get from the tyres through my palms.

    1. It’s not just for the leverage and, as you say, it gives you the wider option of movements in the event of the unexpected. But, yes, strictly the modern PAS car doesn’t need two hands to guide it. And I have to admit that, many years ago, when I severed a tendon in my hand, I fitted what the US called a Necker’s Knob, though in this case more correctly a fork-lift knob, which allowed me to steer my Citroen Dyane very well.

  3. What a fascinating study of your wheelsmanship. I don’t like the trend to flat bottomed/ topped/ both wheels on production cars (I.e. where there is more than 1 turn lock-to-lock). Peugeot’s i-cockpit concept is a welcome attempt at innovation and diversity, but it strikes me that there is some more hard thinking to do here. It will probably only truly work with a proper HUD projected onto the ‘screen.

  4. Here in the US we’ve been advised to put our hands at 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock on the steering wheel. It seems that the the dangerous explosive device in the wheel’s hub is less likely to break forearms when it goes off if the wheel is held this way. Ten and two is supposed to be much riskier.

    1. Interesting. I just looked it up. “Airbag-induced thumb avulsion”. Or, as our own dear Daily Mail, with it’s usual level headedness puts it “ten-to-two could tear off your hands in a crash”.

      I know US airbags used to be larger that European airbags because they might not be supplemented by seat belts. Is that still the case?

      Actually, studying my normal position more accurately, I guess it is more Twelve-to-Three. Not that there is any airbag there to pop out.

      The other problem about curling your thumbs around the wheel in a car that gives feedback (so not my car or most moderns) is the possibility of the wheel kicking back and dislocating your thumbs. Something that can also happen if you wrap them to tight round motorcycle handlebars.

      “The Daily Mail says that drivers are best advised to leave their hands at home before driving”

  5. My point is that with virtually all cars having assisted steering today the original requirement (leverage) when the idea of steering wheels came into existence is no longer relevant.
    Today’s accelerator pedal along with braking and some drive selectors are routed through a computer which we have come to accept. I believe it’s only a matter of time until this evolves into a complete drive by wire system with either a joy stick or similar device eliminating the traditional wheel and driverless cars will be the catalyst.

    1. GM experimented with joystick controlled cars in the mid-late ’50s but the idea never made it to production. The best argument against it came from a neurophysiologist friend whose work is in cutting-edge prosthetics. He pointed out that operating so many functions through a small part of the nervous system puts tremendous stress on both the human ‘wiring’ and the part of the brain sending signals to it.

      Operating vehicles with all four limbs might seem to belong in a time when driving was a heavily physical process, rather than a cerebral one, but the principle has much to commend it.

    2. Having a slightly compulsive character, I’ve steered clear of gaming and, as a result, share the joystick skills of the majority of my peers. However those kids who grew up with video games, many of whom might now be getting on for 50, would find the transition less challenging. But Robertas’s point seems very credible, though I’d also suggest that the steering wheel has lasted so long because it’s usually tolerant of clumsy inputs. So, for the present, it remains the sensible interface for the average car. But it is surprising that no-one has tried a joystick controlled sports car.

  6. My XM encourages single handed motorway driving by means of a small hollow on the rear surface of the single spoke on the wheel. You can change the car’s direction by a slight nudge of the wheel. Around town the car seems to want finger tips only on the wheel rim. It’s very economical. Other cars (newer ones) suggest little to me regarding where to hold the wheel.
    I applaud Peugeot applying some thought to this and being brave enough to make and market it. I’d be interested to give it a try. Why can’t one rent Peugeots?

  7. Richard – I’m pleased to see that you never resort to the execrable practice of ‘palming’ the wheel like a teenager.

    I thought that this was an invention of “power steering natives”, but I’ve been told that its origins are far older.

    New drivers seem to have a natural inventiveness when it comes to controlling vehicles. A schoolmate, the son of a clergyman, steered his parents’ Mini Clubman with the toe of his shoe on a clamp on the exposed steering column. My party trick was driving my Renault 5 from the passenger seat. Neither I, nor the car were ever harmed in the making of this act of youthful bravado.

    1. Is “palming” where you just use an open palm and rely on friction to grip the rim of the wheel? The palm is parallel to the plane of the steering wheel’s diameter.

    2. Apart from palming, I also abhor the hand inverted inside the rim at the top of of the wheel. Not because it looks melodramatic (though it does) but because, once committed to that pose, you aren’t in a good position to react to the unexpected.

  8. The Citroen SM actually moved it’s steering in the direction of a tiller or joy stick by reducing its lock to lock turn to two from the usual four or five of the period. Reduce it further down to one turn or less, lose the rim and you end up with a fat stick!
    The SM as some may or may not know added in variable assist and powered self centering which aids in adapting to this quick ratio. Basically the car steers itself in a default straight ahead direction regardless of speed with deft input from the driver to deviate from this.
    Adapting to this system from conventional vehicles takes a few miles but once tried all other methods seem archaic and like steering a boat!
    Has anyone ever seen an SM parked with front wheels on full lock?

    1. Surprisingly the SM sold quite well in the US where its precision would have been even more of a sea change than in Europe. Nevertheless, your point about ‘deft input’ is relevant. All of us here take interest and pride in our driving, but the majority of owners do not. That’s not a criticism of them, just that car ownership, like home DIY, is yet another of those responsibilities many of us reluctantly have to take on. So, although the fact that they might forever be distracted by the need to unwrap sweets, wipe spilt coffee off their laps, select a new album on the player, look at that really fit… etc, etc, at least their general progress round that gentle bend doesn’t deviate. In the SM, though, such inattention is rewarded quite harshly.

      One of the many (both true and apocryphal) reasons for the SM’s demise I’ve read was that, in San Francisco, it was mandatory to hill park with the wheels on full lock to steer the car into the kerb in the event of brake failure – and the SM’s handbrake isn’t that great in fact.

    2. I remember going some distance to collect my SM many years ago and finding I could hardly keep it in the lane until I learned to virtually let it drive itself.

      For those in the know the SM can be parked with the wheels on lock simply by shutting down and rocking the
      Steering back and forth to bleed the pressure down so the wheel remains at an appropriate angle.
      I think the car died a death in the USA due to limited numbers,lack of proper maintenance and fadish low attention syndrome. Here in the UK there were a lot of cam chain problems of which I think I might have discovered why after studying my workshop manual on the adjustment thereof but that’s another story.

  9. As a connoisseur of UK-produced TV detective shows, it amazes me how often steering is accomplished by one hand only, at the eleven or twelve o’clock position. Just like here in North America, where I refer to it as the “ape-hanger” style.

    These days, although steering wheel airbags are somewhat less powerful than they were 15 years ago, you are still courting a slam in the mug of rather injurious proportions in a frontal accident. Teeth on forearm at high speed. Not nice. It’s not me saying it. My brother is an emergency-room physician. Still, as he says, twenty years ago, you got completely mangled faces, torn scalps etc. if not a fatality. Now they complain they have any injuries whatsoever including the indentations of the cloth from the air bag imprinted on their facial skin. Societal advancement!

    Quarter to three or well, face the consequences. On a long motorway drive, I find nine o’clock only is all that’s needed if traffic is light. It’s why I insist on a comfy armrest on the door. Now in the UK, you have to reverse that of course.

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